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Chapter no 29

Life of Pi

Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult?

The answer is the same the world over: people move in the hope of a better life.

The mid-1970s were troubled times in India. I gathered that from the deep furrows that appeared on Father’s forehead when he read the papers. Or from snippets of conversation that I caught between him and Mother and Mamaji and others. It’s not that I didn’t understand the drift of what they said—it’s that I wasn’t interested. The orang-utans were as eager for chapattis as ever; the monkeys never asked after the news from Delhi; the rhinos and goats continued to live in peace; the birds twittered; the clouds carried rain; the sun was hot; the earth breathed; God was—there was no Emergency in my world.

Mrs. Gandhi finally got the best of Father. In February 1976, the Tamil Nadu government was brought down by Delhi. It had been one of Mrs.

Gandhi’s most vocal critics. The takeover was smoothly enforced—Chief Minister Karunanidhi’s ministry vanished quietly into “resignation” or house arrest—and what does the fall of one local government matter when the whole country’s Constitution has been suspended these last eight months? But it was to Father the crowning touch in Mrs. Gandhi’s dictatorial takeover of the nation. The camel at the zoo was unfazed, but that straw broke Father’s back.

He shouted, “Soon she’ll come down to our zoo and tell us that her jails are full, she needs more space. Could we put Desai with the lions?”

Morarji Desai was an opposition politician. No friend of Mrs. Gandhi’s. It makes me sad, my father’s ceaseless worrying. Mrs. Gandhi could have personally bombed the zoo, it would have been fine with me if Father had been gay about it. I wish he hadn’t fretted so much. It’s hard on a son to see his father sick with worry.

But worry he did. Any business is risky business, and none more so than small business, the one that risks the shirt on its back. A zoo is a cultural institution. Like a public library, like a museum, it is at the service of popular

education and science. And by this token, not much of a money-making venture, for the Greater Good and the Greater Profit are not compatible aims, much to Father’s chagrin. The truth was, we were not a rich family certainly not by Canadian standards. We were a poor family that happened to own a lot of animals, though not the roof above their heads (or above ours, for that matter). The life of a zoo, like the life of its inhabitants in the wild, is precarious. It is neither big enough a business to be above the law nor small enough to survive on its margins. To prosper, a zoo needs parliamentary government, democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, rule of law and everything else enshrined in India’s Constitution. Impossible to enjoy the animals otherwise. Long-term, bad politics is bad for business.

People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.

The New India split to pieces and collapsed in Father’s mind. Mother assented. We would bolt.

Ravi and I were thunderstruck. Canada!

It was announced to us one evening during dinner. Ravi and I were thunderstruck. Canada! If Andhra Pradesh, just north of us, was alien, if Sri Lanka, a monkey’s hop across a strait, was the dark side of the moon, imagine what Canada was. Canada meant absolutely nothing to us. It was like Timbuktu, by definition a place permanently far away.

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